DFID Cheerleads Aid Abuse in Ethiopia

Working as editor and reporter of three newspapers in Addis Ababa between 2000 and 2008, I had a chance to closely watch the donor community in Ethiopia. In those years the general impression I got from talking to aid workers was that the most pro-Meles of all agencies was the UK Department for International Development (DFID). That became starkly obvious after the election crisis in 2005. Although DFID was one of the first to withhold aid after the government gunned down protesters, it was also one of the earliest enthusiasts of Protection of Basic Services (PBS) and the “things are improving” theory. DFID’s willingness to make a U-turn forced European members of the Development Assistance Group (DAG), which wanted to keep the pressure on Meles Zenawi, to buckle. The reasons were clear. The UK was the second largest donor to Ethiopia. It had also assumed leadership of governmental initiatives of aid to Africa. My impression is now supported by the report on aid abuse by Human Rights Watch:

…in meetings with officials from nearly every other donor country, including some ambassadors, Human Rights Watch heard frustration with how DFID was using its influence. Many said that it was not concerned only with lobbying the Ethiopian government, but also with persuading other development partners to their favorable view of the EPRDF, sometimes undermining collective positions on human rights.

“We all have problems with DFID,” an aid official from a European government told Human Rights Watch. An official from another European development partner country said:

We are extremely concerned about where the UK is going in general. We are at opposite ends of the scale on many, many issues. People are ignoring the fact that in practice and in theory this government is a sort of communist regime that does not believe in individual rights. They believe in Ethiopia’s right to develop. They have a long-term plan for this country and they think they are the only ones who can implement it, and if some people die in the pursuit of Ethiopia’s right to develop then so be it. It is revolutionary. I can’t see the motives behind what the UK is doing. The UK keeps seeing these positive signs and signals that no one else can see.

One aid official from a European Union member state referred to DFID officials as “believers” in the EPRDF project, while yet another said, “I’m glad I’m not working for DFID—here you have space to raise things, talk, you can agree to disagree.”

DFID’s endorsement of EPRDF policies is significant because the ability of donors to act together to pressurize the government on important human rights issues such as elections or monitoring of politicization in development programs rests on them acting together and sharing an analysis of the problem. Even UK Foreign Office officials told researchers that they “share [Human Rights Watch’s] analysis” of the repressive character of the EPRDF regime. Meanwhile, it was abundantly clear that officials in the DFID office across the road in Addis Ababa did not.

The position of DFID is, to some extent, a result of its institutional responsibilities. The 2002 International development Act enshrines in law that the department’s budget can only be used for the purposes of poverty reduction. With such a restriction, DFID is removed from the center of government where decisions of foreign policy and national security are made. As one commentator said, the act made DFID an “Oxfam in whitehall”. It is, therefore, no surprise that DFID focuses largely on trying to get its funds disbursed, and eschews making judgments about the political situation of aid receivers. There are three troubles with this approach. First, it flies in the face of plenty of research that shows the connection between poverty alleviation and governance. Second, it confuses the interest of the recipients with the disbursement of its funds. Third, non-judgment in the face of gross political distortion of aid amounts to a ringing endorsement of the staus quo.

But the problem with DFID in Ethiopia is not just being non-judgmental about the political situation. DFID is often non-judgmental only when that position serves the regime in power. As HRW’s report shows, it does not shy away from displaying its enthusiasm for EPRDF in other situations: getting other donors to support the regime, pressuring British government ministers not to make damaging political statements, and defending the regime in the media. In that sense, it is making British foreign policy by stealth as the conservatives have claimed for years.


One of our readers e-mailed me: “There is a strong debate in the UK on the role of DFID. Ethiopians living in the UK should make our voices heard.”
Check here to understand some aspects of the debate.

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18 Responses to “DFID Cheerleads Aid Abuse in Ethiopia”

  1. It is well known that DIFD’s main aim is not development assistance. Aid for the British is a weapon to recruit mercenaries all over the world. Meles is one of their guy who does whatever is told by the British to do. For that matter it is not only the DIFD officials who sided with the TPLF after the 2005 massacre. The then foreign affairs advisor Lord Triesman blamed the opposition leaders for the violence and he was providing diplomatic assistance to TPLF. He has traveled to Ethiopia several times to forge close ties and assistance with the TPLF.

    Having said this, MP’s and the press may take this issue seriously and it is a good idea if Ethiopians in the UK contact their MP’s and show them the HRW report and the UK’s support for dictatorship in Ethiopia.

  2. This is a classical Euro-centrist approach to Africa which is we are not yet ready for basic individual freedom and democracy. I appreciate what this article is trying to expose.

  3. Thanks as usual to Abiy and the AN team for keeping up the fight against corruption, bigotry, totalitarianism and repression in Ethiopia. It is very obvious and apparent that the immense power the British once wielded is declining at an astonishing rate. The case in point is the spate it had with Zimbabwe and the defiance Mugabe showed in the face of the supposed might of the British were going to exercise. Unfortunately for the British they discovered that the only power they had was propaganda, which they employed mercilessly. However the double/multiple standard was telling as the massive propaganda campaign on Mugabe’s corrupt dictatorial regime which holds elections where opposition can campaign freely, get close to 47% of the vote is compared with Meles’s Ethiopia where 99.63% of the parliamentary sit is amassed by one party, the DFID and the British are cheering. There is no doubt Mugabe is a dictator, but compared to Meles, in African eyes what the west is doing smells like a fish and tests like one. Who gets the aid, praise and wink? The reason the British in particular and the west in general is leaking credibility is simple. They employ double standard sending confusing messages and signals. They are for human rights in Zimbabwe, not in Ethiopia, they are for justice in Zimbabwe not in Ethiopia, they are for freedom in Zimbabwe not in Ethiopia, they are for development in Zimbabwe not in Ethiopia. No wonder there credibility level has been plummeting.

    The Diaspora chattering class in the west hasn’t yet stepped up to the challenge that is confronting Ethiopia. We are all in a position to appeal over the heads of the politicians and lords of poverty like DFID and directly appeal to the public to effect a change. It will take a while but it is something doable and can have a transformational effect to our struggle. Let’s help the solidarity and civic movements that have sprung up in the west to bring about the necessary public awareness as the tax we and the oblivious citizens in the west are paying shouldn’t be used to oppress our people in Ethiopia.

    The message we have is very simple and easily understandable to the public at large. Don’t use the tax money we pay to shore up dictatorships and repression. Our tax money should only be used to help developmental activity in Ethiopia as it says on the tin!

  4. Dear Abiye,
    What I have witnessed from my good times and contacts with the donors community in Addis like DFID is that the organization and their staff are much more Woyanees than Woyanes themselves.This is a truism -they shy away from anybody they think is anti-EPRDF and don’t want to listen any single thing from you that is against the incumbent.I am always surprised of their infatuation with TPLF/EPRDF.
    A calibrated journalist must investigate this nexus of aid givers/donors and Meles’ love.Although DFID and USAID as major bilateral donors are mostly raised as issues in this case-all the other bilateral and multilateral donors are of pro EPRDF stance.
    The Diaspora has a great mission in this case- the Ethiopian Diaspora needs to rally against such injustice and in human engagement.

  5. Well written article!!
    What will be the goal of criticizing donors in supporting the country/regime? What do you want them to do? Donors have always been and will always be working primarily for their own interests. And they don’t give a damn because a developing nation didn’t get a just democracy. That will continue to be the scene whether you bark or not.
    Abiye, what do you want the donors to do?
    1)To decrease/stop giving aid at all = Who will be the victim?
    2)To pressure the government to be ‘democratic’ as they are = don’t expect others to fight your own fight. A just democracy only happens by having young fellows, like you, who are ready to sacrifice their life for the belief they have (in a peaceful way). Sitting somewhere in NA or UK and expecting donors to do the job is immature.

    • Fact

      Why are you contradicting yourself? You seem to agree with Abiye’s message and yet you try to blame him simply because he wrote the Article residing in UK.


  7. Aynu,

    No contradictions, I like the way he wrote the article, and the idea he tried to expose. What I am saying is: ”yes it is true that the aid companies aren’t as genuine as we expect them to be, but they will only change when their interest needs them to change”
    I couldn’t know what the intention of the likes of Abiye is with regard to the pressure they need the donors to put on Zenawi’s shoulder. Mind u the shoulders of Zenawi are the innocent Ethiopians.

  8. Fact:

    Abiye challenged the actions of DFID in Ethiopia. He questioned why DFID officials in Addis try to obscure the misdeeds of EPRDF. He criticized them for being pro-EPRDF. And you call the article “well written”. This means you agree with the main idea of the article. If so, why are you asking him to stop criticizing donors?

  9. Nice piece again. This is not to elaborate what Abiyeeee has done on his behalf. Rather it is just to remark to my brother FACT that Abiye’s article is as clear as white and has nothing to confuse him.

    The article:
    . Shares Abiye’s experience from observation
    . Urge its readers to be realistic and understand what the DFID is doing and why
    . Initiate readers to closely follow the perception and reason of the decision of the officials of DFID
    . Uncover the problem lurked in the philosophy of the DFID’s undertaking
    . Shows the difference between other aid officials and DFID officials in particular
    . Calls for the scrutiny of aid abuses

    On the basis of the aforementioned points you, FACT, or others including me can interpret the issue at hand. Abiye never said to cease the aid. In my opinion he even does not look to think in that regard. So FACT, You are entitled to your opinion. But you have to be reasonable. If you want to argue that no matter how the government uses the money donors should persist in aiding that is “fantastic”. But the decision is up to the owner of the money. Sooner or later the people from whom the tax is collected will put the final word.

    Personally, I am attracted to rethink on the relationship between the TPLF/EPRDF and aid workers and other English personnel. What comes to my mind reading Abiye’s article is person like Basil Davidson, Patrick Gilkes, Bob Gheldof , Tony Blair etc. Is there any thing that should be said about the affections of such individuals or institutions like the DFID with TPLF/EPRDF? To what extent the DFID associates the continuation of aid to Ethiopia with its official personal fortune should also be a matter to be deplored. Is DFID “lord of Poverty?”

  10. Not surprised. Not only DFID, the UK also provide security advices strengthening the repressive machine of Meles’ regime. Everything the regime is doing in Ethiopia appears to be a replica of UK’s handling of its former colonies. All the indications are for the existence of a more initimate relationship between the UK and Meles’ regime, in addition to the humanitarian and development aid. The only thing I am not clear is what could be the particular motive or interest of UK in this adventure (of course, the war on terrorism goes for all governments in the West).

  11. Berhanu Debotch

    Yap u got me, all am saying is as long as the government is putting part/major part of the money on development related aspects, we should support donors to continue helping. The center of my argument stands on the fact that a single dime reduction of the aid affects only the underprivileged Ethiopians, not Zenawi. To prove this there is no need to go far than looking at Eritrea. The aid might be abused to some extent as we don’t have two pockets for the government and the Party EPRDF. I won’t dare to deny that. However, the development manifestations on the ground affirm that part of the aid has been effectively exercised for the purpose it was intended for. A non research based theory I would have for why Bob Gheldof, Tony Blair….support the current regime is an affection of observing a positive change towards poverty reduction in Ethiopia.

  12. Fact

    The idea that we should keep quite and let the aid workers and their EPRDF friends abuse foreign aid as long as “part” of it reaches the poor is nerve-racking, to say the least. Forgive me if I am misreading here, but nobody is asking donors to stop their aid. No doubt Ethiopia needs lots of aid even though our economy is growing at 11% per year (so they say). If foreign aid workers and their EPRDF cronies abused “part” of the aid, we have every right to go after them and let them know that they are thieves. There is no need to be apologetic for such malicious act.

  13. Abebe,

    You are asking a pertinent question.To understand British policy, it is important to know that the UK, not TPLF, is the prime architect of ethnic organizations and politics in Ethiopia. Greenfield, Lewis, Gilkes are some of the personalities that literally shaped the ideology and politics of organizations such as the TPLF, ONLF, and to some extent also of the OLF. If you want to know more about that, do some research on the massive material and secret service support that ethnic insurgent organizations in Ethiopia obtained from the UK (and under advisement of the Brits also from Carter’s and Reagan’s US) since the 1970s.

    It was all done under the guise of fighting communism, but Britain’s particular liking for and expertise in tribal politics in Africa is well-known. In every African country they have their preferred ethnies, and in Ethiopia, the British consider Tigreans (and to a lesser extent ethnic Somalis) their historical and loyal allies, going back to the time when Yohannes helped them to ambush and destroy Theodros.

    By contrast, they view Amharas as belligerent nationalists, who not only refused to accommodate British dominance in Ethiopia in the wake of WWII, but also helped destabilize the colonial order in Africa (Haile Selassie’s support for anti-colonial fighters; Mengistu’s support for the struggle against white-settler supermacist regimes in Zimbabwe, Namibia, etc).

    Actually, the Brits see the current political equation in Ethiopia as a struggle between Tigreans and Amharas, and they are decidedly on the side of their loyal Tigrean allies. The Brits consciously and deliberately support Tigreans to build the kind of minority dominance that the Tutsis have been able to build in Rwanda.

    It is this tribal thinking imported from Britain to the US in the 1980s that so far also influences large sections of the policy-making establishment at the US Dept of State. The TPLF very well knows about and strives to implement this tribal agenda. Unfortunately, most Ethiopians seem to easily be captivated by mindless text-book sloganeering, either by Leninist sloganeering of old or by liberal orthodoxies of new. They are largely oblivious to the kind of thinking that drives Western realpolitic today, and are therefore unable to formulate any realistic vision for democracy, equity, and national integrity in Ethiopia. That has always been the dilemma of the “miseducated negro” everywhere else in the world. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before Ethiopians cultivate autonomous and critical perspectives on their social reality.

  14. Seifu,

    Thank you very much. I have even met some foreigners who plainly and boldly argue that the Tigrayans are and should be the main motors of the future development of the country.

  15. Aynu,

    Let me ask!! say the current government is overthrown by anyway. Do you think the aid abuse will then stop?
    As long as we agree on the notion that the whole purpose of this critique is not to reduce the amount of money reaching the government, we are on the same boat. I am not saying we should remain in our silence while the aid is somehow abused. You can count this as a progressive anti-corruption movement that should be implemented in the country. Like democracy, anti-corruption is a progressive phenomena….and I agree, we should work on that.

  16. Fact:

    I am not saying that the corrupt practice of foreign aid workers and their local cronies will end as soon as EPRDF is removed from power. Such assertion would be naïve. All I am saying is that there is nothing wrong in criticizing abuse of foreign aid no matter what. You seem to think that the purpose of such criticism should not aim at “[reducing] the amount of money reaching the government”. With all due respect, I will never agree with this notion. As I said, if the government or foreign aid workers take some of the aid money and abuse it, I call them thieves. I will not stop criticizing them simply because my disparagement might (to use your phrase again) “reduce the amount of money reaching the government”. Do you know why? Because I have no intention of collaborating with thieves.

  17. @ Fact,
    Excuse me for the late response I am making to your comment. It seems you have taken my idea as it goes with yours. I am afraid that it does not. To be frank, my recommendation is to assess what explains the deep relation between the English personnel/institution and TPLF/EPRDF. What you are saying is that you have an answer for it. You did not tell us when and how you arrived at the answer. Any how according to your opinion the reason of the affection is the fact that EPRDF is using part of the aid for the intended end. This is manifested in the development on the ground.

    I do not have any reason to suspect the intention of your point. But its repercussion is like declaring a state of condition whereby corruption should be tolerated if there is utilization of some part of the money obtained for a given end.

    Wow! What an idea is it? If the harbinger of this idea is a non Ethiopian/African, I would have regarded him as racism. If we held election, no matter its consequence, then we are flattered for being in the right track. If we build a dozen of clinic, it will be pronounced that by 2015 we will be fulfilling the MDG. These all is like telling to us that we can not do more than what we have achieved so far. I know an Ethiopian who completed his PhD abroad. He complains that during his study, his fortnight presentations were appreciated even if it is with lower quality as compared to the work of the whites. Avery friend of mine who is teaching in a university once challenged an expatriate instructor for overlooking serious limitation of a thesis and investing cheep appreciation on it. By the way some Ethiopians too may do this, not from racial consideration, but for sheer irresponsibility. This reaction is not ill intended to associate your response with such notion.
    Your reaction also reminds me another incident. Nearly a year ago, I have attended a conference on Business Ethics as part of the series organized by FSSR. Following Kibur Gena’s presentation and Prof Yohanes’ comment other participants appeared too critical pointing at the flourishing government sponsored corruption. In the middle of the discussion, a zealot defender of the regime’s cause burst to justify his government by describing the positive side of corruption. He argued corruption’s “value” as resource distribution. Thus I took your comment as his type.

    For my Ethiopian brother like him and you, I suggest to develop sense of urgency to cope up with those wrong positions that lingered with us the last few years. You better look to the amount of money received in the form of aid in the last at least five years and calculate it with the cost of whatever development you may say, and then you sense why citizens are criticizing the case in point. For your curiosity you may look the article by Sisay Agena on Ethiomedia. Using the source from Organization for Economic cooperation & Development he articulated how much the EPRDF led government wasted the money. He is allegdly acusing the incumbent to explain how it spent about 400 billion birr, a range of what the government recieved so far from what it actually spent on the construction of roads and the building of electric dams. I think there is every reason to suspect the government is using this money and the country’s resources to co-opt people whatever left from building few school and clinics. The implication of such acts in the long run will spell itself in the country’s making. Already it is easy to see the signs. There is nothing frustrating than seeing graduates queuing to enlist themselves in the party, for which they are not either ideologically or practically attracted to, just for securing job. No matter your grade, you make sure first to be member of the party to ensure your employment. It encourages decadency of moral and what in the language of the party “rent seeking.” It is against healthy and fair economic development. It is like endorsing the suffering of legal peoples. This is inimical to the building of a nation in the long term. One can not take this stance as healthy. Such aid dependent loyalty will have its own shortcoming on the party too.

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